It was once explained to me that the quarterback is football’s most important position because the quarterback is the only player who touches the ball on every play. No real argument there, other than the fact that the statement not actually true.
The center also touches the ball on each play.
While that reality doesn’t make center football’s 2nd most important position, in football, it does highlight the critical role it plays in the offense. With that in mind, just how big of a need is center for the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the 2021 NFL Draft?
Steelers center J.C. Hassenauer. Photo Credit: AP
Steelers Depth Cart at Center: The Starter
When it comes to the Steelers needs at Center in the 2021 NFL Draft the fact that Pittsburgh has no starting center tells us a lot.
But there’s mistaking the fact that the Steelers will miss Pouncey’s leadership in the locker room.
Steelers Center Depth Chart: The Backups
Current the Steelers have two backup centers, J.C. Hassenauer an unrestricted rookie free agent from the 2021 squad, and B.J. Finney who joined the Steelers via the practice squad in 2015, work himself into a regular roster spot in 2016 and started 13 games over the next four season.
B.J. Finney departed in free agency in 2020, but was ultimately traded by Seattle to Cincinnati, who cut him earlier this year.
The Steelers wasted little time in bringing B.J. Finney back to Pittsburgh.
At this point, both J.C. Hassnuer and B.J. Finney project more like the next Sean Mahan or the next Justin Hartwig as opposed to the next Dermontti Mansfield, the next Mike Hartings or the next Maurkice Webster. But the Steelers did win a Super Bowl with Justin Hartwig and he was seen as a strong enough player to warrant a 2nd, 4 year contract prior to the 2009 season.
The Steelers 2021 Draft Needs at Center
By bringing back B.J. Finney Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin brought themselves the luxury of not having to reach for a center early in the draft. This is critical.
The Steelers have too many needs in at too many other spots on the depth chart to tie their hands at center. And besides, when Colbert and Tomlin reach, Jarvis Jonesand Artie Burnshappen.
But make no mistake about it, center is one of Pittsburgh’s top needs.
The story is 55 years in the making. Its authors include Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson, Jeff Hartings and Maurkice Pouncey. Highlights of their tale, The Steelers Legacy of Excellence at Center, include 27 Pro Bowls, 14 1st Team All Pro selections, 9 Super Bowl appearances, 7 Lombardi Trophies and 2 busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Maurkice Pouncey has announced his retirement, indicating it is time for someone else to pick up the thread.
Can that man be J.C. Hassenauer, who took his place in 2020? Let’s take a look.
Steelers center J.C. Hassenauer. Photo Credit: AP
Capsule Profile of J.C. Hassenauer’s Career with the Steelers
Hassenauer, a center who played his college ball at powerhouse Alabama, was an undrafted free agent in 2018 and signed with the Falcons. After being cut by Atlanta, Hassenauer signed with the Birmingham Iron of the newly-founded Alliance of American Football in the spring of 2019. After playing eight games with the Iron before the AAF folded, Hassenauer was signed to the Steelers practice squad later that year. Hassenauer was promoted to the active roster by the end of the 2019 regular season, but it was in 2020 where he got some real experience at the center position, starting four games in place of the legendary Maurkice Pouncey.
The Case for the Steelers Resigning J.C. Hassenauer
Hassenauer is an exclusive rights free agent, which means he has literally zero leverage in contract negotiations. But on the plus side for Hassenauer, he’s coming off a season in which he gained some valuable experience as a starter. Did he perform all that well? Not really, but he wasn’t alone along the Steelers offensive line in 2020. The Steelers need to revamp their line, and it wouldn’t hurt to see what they have in someone like Hassenauer, if for nothing else than for depth purposes. Also, Pouncey has officially retired, and this could be the opportunity for the Steelers to find their next center at the diamond in the rough store.
The Case Against the Steelers Resigning J.C Hassenauer
To reiterate, Hassenauer didn’t show out and make people stand up and take notice while filling in for Pouncey last year. Perhaps the Steelers already know what they have in Hassenauer, and they don’t like it.
Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and J.C. Hassenauer
What could it hurt to bring Hassenauer to training camp? It certainly wouldn’t hurt the Steelers precarious financial situation. I say it’s a no-lose situation to at least sign him and bring him to training camp. And besides that, its not like the Steelers have anyone else who can play center….
Pittsburgh Steelers center and perennial Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey has announced his retirement, marking the official beginning of the end of an era in Steelers offensive line history.
Fans can be forgiven their frustration over the last two seasons as the Steelers offensive line has slipped for one simple reason:
For almost half a decade, it was almost a given the Steelers had the best offensive line in NFL.
The Tomlin era certainly didn’t start that way. Mike Tomlin inherited a strong, albeit aging offensive line that promptly fell apart in after the 2007 season and then had to be rebuilt during the 2008 season. What followed was a “Plug and Patch” approach to offensive line building that saw the Steelers sign an entire starting offensive line to 2nd contracts only to cut all of them before they completed their deals.
Behind these injuries were numerous surgeries, and numerous complications.
But Maurkice Pouncey never let it slow him down on the field, and he always remained a presence in the locker room.
Best Offensive Line in Football
Building a dominant offensive line takes time. Maurkice Pouncey gave the Steelers a piece. Ramon Foster, a product of “Plug and Patch” proved himself worthy of being another. In 2011 the Steelers drafted Marcus Gilbert, who remained a force until injuries derailed his career. In 2012, David DeCastro arrived, as did Kelvin Beachum. In 2014, the Steelers took a flyer on Alejandro Villanueva, and by the end of 2015 he was a starter.
Steelers offensive line. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive
At the center of it, literally and figuratively, was Maurkice Pouncey.
Maurkice Pouncey led the line with his superior play. When discipline needed to be enforce, such as when Myles Garrett assaulted Mason Rudolph with a deadly weapon, it was Maurkice Pouncey who retaliated.
That example stands out, but there were numerous smaller ones which either escaped the camera and/or memory. But those plays cemented Pouncey’s role as locker room leader.
Shortly after Ben Roethlisberger declared prior to the playoff loss to the Jaguars that would not retire, Maurkice Pouncey let it be known that he too would return. This was the first indication that Pouency was considering starting his “Life’s Work.”
Shortly thereafter, word leaked that Pouency was considering retirement. On Friday February 12th, he made it official. By retiring, Maurkice Pouency simplified the Steelers salary cap situation by giving them back over 8 million dollars.
But make no mistake about it, those 8 million dollars will never replace the leadership and character that Maurkice Pouency contributed to the Steelers Way.
“I hope you’re willing to eat a little crow,” is something sports fans say when someone has an opinion about a player or team they don’t agree with.
As it pertains to Steelers running backJames Conner, perhaps I should prepare to do a little crow hunting for my dinner. Why? Because my strong opinion heading into Pittsburgh’s Week 2 match-up against the Broncos at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon was that Conner should play second fiddle to Benny Snell, Jr.
James Conner rushes as Alejandro Villanueva blocks. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com
Conner, who rushed for just nine yards on six carries before exiting the Week 1 contest, showed all of his critics, including me, that we were wrong in doubting him, as he carried the football 16 times for 106 yards and a score in Pittsburgh’s 26-21 victory over the Broncos last Sunday.
Conner looked poised, healthy and strong as he put the finishing touches on Sunday’s win with a 59-yard scamper right after Pittsburgh took over on downs with 1:51 remaining.
As for Benny Snell, he did nothing to reward the faith those who had any in him, and he followed up what appeared to be a breakthrough performance six days earlier by gaining just five yards on three carries and almost breaking the Steelers’ back with a fumble early in the fourth quarter that allowed Denver to get back into the game.
Now, the critics of James Conner’s critics are saying, “See? You were wrong! That’s what you get for making snap judgments.”
Whoa, I can’t speak for most of his critics, but I know I didn’t make any snap judgments about James Conner after Week 1. Those judgments and opinions were based on an entire body of work, mainly going back to late in the 2018 season, when multiple injuries forced him to miss several games down the stretch during a year in-which Pittsburgh barely missed the playoffs.
James Conner missed six more games in 2019 due to various ailments and, to reiterate, his 2020 debut in New York was filled with more of the same.
As for my opinions on Snell, they weren’t formed based on just one game. In addition to Snell’s impressive 2020 debut, I based my opinion on how well he played down the stretch of the 2019 campaign, when he nearly caught Conner to become the team’s leading rusher on the season.
Benny Snell’s rushing was one of the true bright spots for the Steelers against the Ravens. Photo Credit: Nick Wass, AP via PennLive.com
I based my reasoning on Snell’s offseason conditioning program that saw him report to training camp 12 pounds lighter than his rookie campaign. I used that knowledge to wonder if Snell’s explosive running style in Week 1 could have been attributed to his sleeker look.
But mostly, I based my judgments and opinions on Conner and his unreliable health.
I mean, how silly would it have looked for me to call for James Conner to be benched after one game if he was coming off of back-to-back injury-free and Pro Bowl seasons? Pretty darn silly.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Conner wasn’t coming off of back-to-back injury-free and Pro Bowl seasons. Sure, he made the Pro Bowl in 2018 while filling in for Le’Veon Bell, who spent that entire year holding out in a contract dispute with the Steelers, but as I mentioned already, that season wasn’t devoid of injuries for Conner.
Fact is, Conner may have answered his critics this past Sunday, but is he going to continue to answer them on a consistent-enough basis over the course of the season? Make no mistake, when James Conner has been healthy and in the lineup, he’s generally been a really good running back for the Steelers, someone who would have made fans utter a collective “Le’Veon Who?” a long time ago.
But the fans haven’t forgotten about Bell, or at least the record breaking production he provided during his five seasons as the Steelers starting running back.
Sure, Bell had his problems with injuries and suspensions, but in terms of overall health and reliability, he was an Ironman on par with the late Mike Webster compared to James Conner.
As I’ve said many times, James Conner’s story, one that includes overcoming cancer, is a great and admirable one. But until he proves otherwise, Conner’s story must include a chapter about his problems with injuries.
Until he proves over and over again that he can be a reliable running back for the Steelers, only then will that chapter be edited out of his story.
And only then will his critics truly have to sit down and eat a little crow.
I was recently watching an NFL Films “Top 10” production that ranked the all-time best safeties in the history of the league.
Much to my amazement, Donnie Shell, a 1974 undrafted free agent out of tiny South Carolina State, made the list at number nine.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, Shell played 14 years in Pittsburgh, was elected to five Pro Bowls, made First-team All-Pro three times, was a four-time Super Bowl-winner and collected 52 interceptions before calling it a career following the 1987 campaign.
Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.
However, when it comes to safeties throughout franchise history, Shell has not only been overshadowed by the likes of Troy Polamalu, but people such as Mike Wagner, Carnell Lake and even Ryan Clark have also made their marks while contributing heavily to some memorable Super Bowl teams and runs over the years.
But maybe it’s safe to say those days are behind us now, and Shell will finally get the recognition he has so long deserved. He’ll certainly get the immortality now that he’s been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020.
Speaking of which, Shell was part of the Steelers famed 1974 rookie class of players who proved to be the final pieces of the puzzle for a Super Bowl run that would see the organization snag four Lombardi trophies over a six-year span between 1974-1979.
The Steelers 1974 draft class, one that included four future Hall of Fame players who were picked over the first five rounds–receiver Lynn Swann (first round); linebacker Jack Lambert (second round); receiver John Stallworth (fourth round); and center Mike Webster (fifth round)–has been recognized as the greatest in NFL history for quite some time.
It’s a draft that stood on its own. It’s a draft that didn’t need anything else to make it greater.
But while undrafted free agents are just that, they’re still a part of the same rookie class as the players who were drafted. They still have to prove themselves to their coaches and veteran teammates. Unfortunately for UDFAs, they don’t necessarily have the same odds and opportunities as the drafted players. Oh, sure, coaches like to say that they don’t play favorites, that rookies earn a spot on the team by what they show them on the practice field and not because of their draft pedigree.
Let’s be honest, though, drafted players, particularly those selected in rounds 1-3, have a much longer leash and get many more chances to make an impression with their coaches.
Undrafted free agents, on the other hand, they usually have the longest odds and the shortest leashes. And back in the mid-1970s, when the annual NFL Draft consisted of 17 rounds, UDFAs had an even tougher time than they do today with drafts lasting just seven rounds.
Tim Rooney and Dick Haley in Steelers 70’s Draft War Room
But that just makes what Donnie Shell was able to accomplish, by not only making the Steelers roster in 1974, but by going on to have such a decorated career, even more remarkable.
That brings us to the tremendous job the Steelers scouting department was doing in those days.
Thanks to Bill Nunn Jr., the legendary scout whose connections with small black colleges proved to be the perfect entree for the Steelers to evaluate players that were being ignored by most pro teams, Pittsburgh was able to build one of the most talented rosters in the entire NFL, a championship roster that would become the greatest dynasty in the history of the league.
While the likes of Mel Blount, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White and Stallworth were more high-profile members of those famed ’70s Steelers teams, Shell may have actually been the greatest example of an African American football player from a small school getting an opportunity he may not have had, otherwise.
Kudos to the Steelers scouting department for doing its due diligence with Shell–he may actually be the greatest find in franchise history.
Finally, while Donnie Shell will never be mentioned as one of the drafted players from that ’74 class, his gold jacket and enshrinement in Canton, Ohio further illustrates what a legendary job the Steelers did that year in putting the final touches on a future football dynasty.
After years of being on the outside looking in, former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Donnie Shell has been selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class as part of 10 seniors.
Donnie Shell, who retired in 1987, and who has been eligible since 1993 was only a Hall of Fame Finalist in 2002. This despite the fact that Donnie Shell has 51 interceptions to his credit, a record for an NFL strong safety which still stands today, according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Donnie Shell intercepts Dan Marino in the 1985 AFC Championship game. Photo Credit: Manny Rubio, USA Today.
Yet, as commentators debated the merits of inducting Buffalo Bills special teams demon Steve Tasker into the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell’s name was forgotten outside of Pittsburgh. And the reason is quite clear:
In his quest to reach the Hall of Fame, Donnie Shell has fought the mentality that “There are already too many Steelers in Canton.”
This is the same mentality that hurt Lynn Swann and John Stallworth’s candidacy, with Peter King openly skeptical about putting so many Steelers in the Hall of Fame. As Lynn Swann approached the end of his eligibility, the Steelers made the unusual step of lobbying for Swann, which got Swann in. Swann in turn asked Stallworth to induct him into Canton in an open bid to boost his candidacy. John Stallworth made into the Hall the next year
But, as Ed Bouchette explained in The Athletic, “Back when Lynn Swann and John Stallworth were elected in consecutive years, I had one HOF voter actually tell me I should not even think “that safety’” — Shell — would ever get in.”
Fortunately, the selectors for the Hall of Fame’s Centennial Class saw things differently.
Another Win for the 1974 Rookie Class, Bill Nunn Jr.
The Steelers signed Donnie Shell as an undrafted rookie free agent in 1974. This came on the heels of the 1974 Draft class that saw the Steelers pick future Hall of Famers Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster.
The Steelers 1974 Draft Class has long been acknowledged as the best in NFL history, by far, and Donnie Shell’s selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame only strengthens the shine of the personnel team’s efforts that year. Art Rooney Jr. and Dick Haley deserve credit for that class, Donnie Shell’s invitation to Canton marks yet another milestone in Bill Nunn Jr.’s already impressive resume.
The Steelers found Donnie Shell by scouting South Carolina State, a Division IAA Historically Black School.
Bill Nunn, who’d come to the Steelers after working as the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most important African American newspapers of its generation, and maintained extensive connections with the coaches at Historically Black Colleges. This gave the Steelers a leg up in selecting players like L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Stallworth and Donnie Shell.
Donnie Shell earned a roster spot by playing on special teams with the 1974 Steelers.
By 1977 Chuck Noll had had enough of Glen Edwards antics, and traded the safety, paving the way for Donnie Shell to join the Steelers starting lineup. Shell remained the Steelers starting free safety for until 1987. During his career, Shell played in 201 games, made 162 starts, and recorded 19 fumble recoveries. He also appeared in 19 post-season games and started 11 of them.
Donnie Shell intercepted Dan Pastorini in the Steelers 1978 AFC Championship win over the Houston Oilers, and he closed his post season resume by intercepting Dan Marino in the Steelers loss to the Miami Dolphins in the 1984 AFC Championship game.
Will Cowher and Shell have Company in Canton
Donnie Shell joins from Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher as part of the Hall of Fame’s 2020 Centennial Class. Two more Steelers alumni could join them. Troy Polamalu is in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, and Alan Faneca is a finalist.
Both men authored Hall of Fame worthy careers, and both men should and will make it to Canton.
Troy Polamalu deserves first year induction, but he along with Faneca could fall victum to the “Too Many Steelers” already in mentality.
Tomorrow the Steelers put the pads on at St. Vincents. Football in shorts will have ended. The sorting between the men and the boys will begin. As Peter King remarked two years ago, Mike Tomlin is one of the last NFL coaches to practice full speed hitting in training camp.
It says here that is a wise move.
As Jack Lambert remarked, “I believe the game is designed to reward the ones who hit the hardest. If you can’t take it, you shouldn’t play.”
Unlike other teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers STILL hit in training camp. Photo Credit: MMQB
And conditioning yourself to hit doesn’t come through simulation. So its good that the Steelers will do some hitting in Latrobe.
But it would be better if Mike Tomlin could run the Oklahoma Drill.
The NFL, in an attempt to reduce head trauma banned the Oklahoma Drill along with a number of other traditional hitting drills. The blunt truth is, this is a wise move. After the tragedies of Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Adrian Robinson, Steelers Nation needs no reminder of the existential threat that CTE poses to football.
But that doesn’t change the reality that something is lost even as player safety gains.
The Oklahoma Drill pits a defender against an offensive player and sometimes a ball carrier in a test of wills.
They line up 3 yards off the ball and the offensive lineman and the defender tussle until the defender is knocked to the ground, or the ball carrier is tackled or disrupted from his one yard corridor. Chuck Noll used to start training camp with the Oklahoma Drill.
Rookie Joe Greene famously tossed Ray Mansfield like a rag doll and anhililated every other offensive lineman in his first Oklahoma Drill.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have regressed each of their past two seasons. The team, along with Ben Roethlisberger, served as a veritable punching bag during the 2019 off season. What better way for Mike Tomlin to set the tone than by asking for volunteers to run say a half dozen Oklahoma Drills?
How about letting Matt Feiler and Chukwuma Okorafor start their competition for the starting right tackle slot by squaring off against Cam Heyward in an Oklahoma Drill? Why not acquaint Mark Barron and Benny Snell Jr. with what it means to be a Steelers by making the former fight through David DeCastro to get to the latter?
Joe Greene’s famous Oklahoma Drill exhibition came on his very first snap of training camp practice. Dick Hoak says that veteran defensive lineman who were watching Greene openly talked about packing their bags. Andy Russell pinpoints this as the key moment when Pittsburgh pivoted from being a perennial loser, to transforming into the best football team the story has or ever will see.
There are a lot of things Mike Tomlin can do to transform this Pittsburgh Steelers squad into a champion this summer at St. Vincents. Sadly, however the Oklahoma Drill won’t be one of the tools at his disposal.
As the saying goes, if I was in an alley fight, and I had to pick a Pittsburgh Steeler to have my back, center Maurkice Pounceywould likely be at the top of my list.
I’m sure the same goes for many of Maurkice Pouncey’s teammates–at least in a metaphorical sense, if not literal.
It has been known for quite some time that, in addition to ably filling the footsteps of Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings by being the latest in a long line of great Steelers centers (seven Pro Bowls and almost certainly destined for immortality in Canton, Ohio, when his career is finally over), Maurkice Pouncey embodies the word “teammate.”
Maurkice Pouncey is keeping Ben Roethlisberger clean. Photo Credit: MyDaytonDailyNews
It’s also no secret he’s one of the true leaders of the Steelers locker room, a player that just about every teammate who has known him during his career has respected and admired.
There’s also no question how much Maurkice Pouncey appreciates being a Pittsburgh Steeler.
While not as vocal about it as other Steeler greats such as Mean Joe Greene and Hines Ward, there’s no doubt Pouncey has always cared about the Steeler shield–the brand–and makes sure others show the same respect and love for the organization that he does.
At the tail-end of the 2017 season, shortly after legendary outside linebacker and fan-favorite James Harrison was released from the team, Maurkice Pouncey was quick to set the record straight on the sentiment that James Harrison was a victim and treated unfairly.
Harrison quickly signed a deal with the Patriots, Pittsburgh’s nemesis for many years. This action seemed to really irk Harrison’s old teammates, especially Maurkice Pouncey, who said Harrison ‘erased‘ his Steelers legacy.
It’s important to point out that Pouncey later clarified his statement and softened his stance on Harrison’s ultimate legacy in Pittsburgh. But there the Steelers were, in a PR alley fight with James Harrison, the media and the fans, and who was the first person to come to the rescue? Maurkice Pouncey.
Maybe that’s why I’m not surprised Pouncey was really aggressive just last week when his Steelers–specifically quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — were being dragged through the mud by two recent former teammates —Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, both of whom accused Roethlisberger of being the real problem in the Steelers locker room.
“I’ve been with Ben going on 10yr,” Pouncey said on Wednesday via his Instragram page. ” I swear on my kids he is a true leader!! sucks to see players who leave and are mad at the organization now try and point fingers like they are perfect! But this is the world we live in now!”
Spoken like a loyal Pittsburgh Steeler and a true team leader.
Will anyone grant Maurkice Pouncey, who, again, has quite the career resume, a national interview to get his positive take on Roethlisberger’s leadership qualities and Pittsburgh’s locker room situation?
Not likely, not when it’s become oh so chic to bash the Steelers on a national level. Not when people take as gospel the words of an All-Pro receiver but not those of an All-Pro center who has been hiking the ball to Roethlisberger for years.
No doubt Pouncey had some issues earlier in his career involving the law and immaturity. He also seemed to alienate the fan base a bit after suffering two season-ending injuries (as if that were his fault). However, Pouncey has not only put to rest his reputation for being injury prone. Much like Rod Woodson, who had some brushes with the law in the early portion of his Steelers career, Maurkice Pouncey has grown into a mature person and, by all accounts, a model citizen.
Fans have always demanded loyalty from their players, which is why the disdain for those who would rather hold out of training camp for more money or go play for another while trashing their previous one is so palpable.
But if you’re looking for loyalty — if you’re looking for someone who is pretty darn proud to be a Pittsburgh Steeler — look no further than Maurkice Pouncey.
All good things come to an end. So it is with Antonio Brown and the Steelers. After dominating the headlines for the first two months of 2019, the on-going Antonio Brown Soap opera reached the beginning of the end as Antonio Brown met with Art Rooney II and the two sides agreed to seek a trade.
Art Rooney II & Antonio Brown agree to part ways. Photo Credit: Twitter
If reports are correct, Antonio Brown first met with Art Rooney II while Brown’s father Eddie Brown was in the room. Once the two sides agreed to a trade, agent Drew Rosenhaus along with Kevin Colbert and Omar Khan joined entered to discuss next steps.
Significantly, the Steelers did not grant Drew Rosenhaus permission to explore trade opportunities with other teams.
This is important, because it underlines the fact that the Steelers are holding on to one of the key cards they have left to play in this deck – determining where Antonio Brown lands. (Preferably somewhere in the NFC.)
It Sucks, But the Steelers Made the Right Decision
There’s no way to sugar coat it, the Pittsburgh 2019 offense will be poorer for Antonio Brown’s absence. However, this move had to be made, however painful it might be.
As Jeremy Fowler’s report detailed, Antonio Brown got preferential treatment from Mike Tomlin.
While this outrages a lot of fans, the truth is that star athletes get special treatment from a lot of organizations, at all levels of organized sports. But abandoning your teammates in the heat of battle – with the playoffs on the line – simply cannot be tolerated.
One can argue that this sets a bad precedent, that in the future disgruntled players can social media temper tantrum their way off the team.
That could happen.
But that pales in comparison to sending a signal to the locker room that quitting is OK.
Like most fans, when news of this incident broke, I clung to some sort of hope that this would somehow just “all go away.” And the Steelers seemed to leave the door open in early January. Perhaps, in a pre-social media era that might have even been possible.
Judging by the title of this article, you probably think I’m going to recount all of the previous times the Steelers entered the final week or weeks of the regular season needing help from teams playing other teams in stadiums not occupied by the Steelers in-order to make the playoffs.
Sort of, but not really.
It is true that the 1989, 1993, 2005 and 2015 Steelers teams all needed help heading into the final regular season weekend, and they all got that help. But, then again, the 2000, 2009 and 2013 editions also needed other teams to be charitable, but the good will sadly wasn’t forthcoming (thank you, Ryan Succop).
Terry Bradshaw behind Mike Webster in Super Bowl XIII. Photo Credit: Al Messerschmidt
Yeah, so while many are bullish on the new Cleveland Browns and their chances of going to Baltimore this Sunday and taking out the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium (let’s not forget the Steelers have some business of their own against the Bengals at Heinz Field to take care of), Pittsburgh’s playoff chances are clearly hanging by the proverbial thread–and that is a precarious spot to be in.
Although, I will say this about the Browns: if any team is equipped mentally to perform this task, it’s them.
They’re not just some team that is used to barely finishing out of the playoffs–believe it or not, at 7-7-1, this is actually true for them. They’re likely not just another team looking forward to a tropical destination this January. They’re probably not even playing for pride–this is what veteran teams do. They’re a team full of youngsters who may actually be drunk on winning.
The Browns won a grand total of one game over the previous two seasons. These Browns are new to this whole winning thing, and I’m sure they’d like nothing more than to hold onto the feeling–even for just one more week. This is Cleveland’s Super Bowl. This is Cleveland’s chance to prove to the whole world that they’re a force to be reckoned with, both this Sunday and many future Sundays to come.
OK, that’s enough rationalizing for one article. Let’s get back to the task at hand: the 2018 Steelers need help this Sunday in-order to make the playoffs. How pathetic, right? Honest to God, this is the third time in the past six seasons Pittsburgh, despite the presences of studs like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Cam Heyward, has AGAIN found itself in this position. How can this keep happening?
I’ll tell you how: life in the NFL. This is nothing unique to the Steelers.
In fact, most teams and most fan bases need a hand up and a handout from time to time…even the Steelers of the 1970’s, arguably the greatest football dynasty of all time.
In the middle of their run of four Super Bowl titles in a six year span, the Steelers actually needed the help of others in-order to keep their playoff streak that would eventually reach eight years straight between 1972-1979 from being interrupted.
While the nine-game winning streak to close out the 1976 regular season was legendary–the defense yielded a grand total of 28 points over that span as the team rebounded from a 1-4 start to begin the year–Pittsburgh wouldn’t have made the postseason and wouldn’t have had a chance to win a third-straight Super Bowl if the Raiders, the team’s biggest rival of the 1970’s, wouldn’t have defeated the Bengals in the penultimate game.
The Steelers were Oakland’s biggest obstacle to championship success at that time, and with an 11-1 record and nothing much to play for, it would have been easy to roll over and allow Cincinnati to seize the old AFC Central Division title. But to the Raiders credit, they took care of business, paving the way for a postseason rematch with Pittsburgh–a rematch in-which the Silver and Black came out victorious on the way to their first Lombardi trophy.
A year later, Pittsburgh entered its final regular season game needing a victory and, again, a Cincinnati loss in-order to make the playoffs. The Bengals were playing fellow AFC Central rivals, the Oilers. Unlike the Raiders a year earlier, Houston had absolutely nothing at stake and nothing to play for. A victory by the Bengals would improve their record to 9-5 and earn them a division title over Pittsburgh based on a tiebreaker.
To their credit, the Oilers took care of Cincinnati, and the Steelers were once again AFC Central Division champions and playoff bound.
You might not think it’s that big a deal that Pittsburgh almost missed the playoffs a couple of times back in the ’70’s. But, remember, the “Same Old Steelers” days of the 1960’s weren’t that far in the rear-view mirror.
Even though Dan Rooney was now running the team and not his father, owner Art Rooney Sr., the legendary lovable loser who took care of things for the better part of 40 miserable seasons, it may have been easy to panic and revert back to the old ways of doing business–for example, firing head coach Chuck Noll, who had just been sued by the Raiders George Atkinson for his “criminal element” comment, a comment that eventually led to Noll, under oath, admitting that Mel Blount and some other Steeler players were also part of that element.
You may also think I’m being a bit disingenuous with this article.
After all, only four teams made the playoffs from each conference in those days, and it was easier to miss out from time to time. True, but teams didn’t have to deal with free agency or a salary cap, either.
Point is, parity has been a part of the NFL since the days of Pete Rozelle, the legendary commissioner, and not even the Steelers of the 1970’s were immune to it.
It’s just plain hard to make the playoffs in the NFL, and even a dynasty needs some help from time to time.